In the South, before the Civil War, literature was not generally favored. Men of intellectual ability there became statesmen, ministers, orators, and jurists. Yet some of these gave occasional attention to literary work, and a few devoted themselves to it almost entirely.
The principal literary figure of the Old South was William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870), who was born in Charleston, South Carolina, where his father had come from the North of Ireland, shortly after the Revolution. He wrote historical, geographical, and didactic works; but he lives only in his romances, which are numerous and stirring. Albert Pike (1809-1891) studied law, commanded a force of Cherokee Indians on the Confederate side at the battle of Pea Ridge. His "Hymns to the Gods" and other poems showed high lyric power. John Esten Cooke undertook to do for Virginia what Simms had done for South Carolina. He published the novel "Leather Stocking and Silk," which was soon followed and surpassed by "The Virginia Comedians," probably the best Southern novel written before the war. Others of his early stories were "The Last of the Foresters" and "Henry St. John, Gentleman." During the Civil War Cooke served on the staff of various Confederate generals. Afterwards he retired to his farm near Winchester, and wrote biographies of Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and several novels relating to the great conflict. Among those were "Mohun: or, the Last Days of Lee and His Paladins," and "Hilt to Hilt: or, Days and Nights in the Shenandoah."
Paul Hamilton Hayne (1831-1886), bearing a name famous in the annals of South Carolina, was the finest poet of the South. He was a native of Charleston, and edited literary periodicals there until the war, when he served on the staff of General Pickens. His house and property were destroyed in the bombardment of Charleston, and, after the war, he settled at Copse Hill, Georgia, where he pursued literary work till his death. Among his best poems are "The Pine's Mystery," the ballad "The Battle of King's Mountain," "The Lyric of Action." His war lyrics are thrilling, and his descriptive and meditative verses are exquisite in music and thought.
Henry Timrod (1829-1867), also born in Charleston, suffered from ill-health and poverty, yet wrote poems full of ardent devotion to the South and its lost cause. His war lyrics, grand and impetuous, won for him the title of "the Tyrtaeus of the South." His poems were edited by P.H. Hayne.
Abram Joseph Ryan (1840-1886), born of Irish parents, at Norfolk, Virginia, was equally devoted to the Southern cause. He was a Catholic priest, and served as chaplain in the Confederate army. After the war he edited religious and literary papers in New Orleans and Knoxville, and had charge of a church at Mobile. In 1880 he published his "Poems, Patriotic, Religious, Miscellaneous." He died at Louisville, Kentucky, in 1886. He is best known by his lament over the defeat of the Confederacy, "The Conquered Banner," and the spirited tribute to the Southern leader, "The Sword of Robert Lee."
The most remarkably original singer of the South was Sidney Lanier (1842-1881), who was chosen to write the cantata for the opening of the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia. He was descended from a long line of musicians, and distinguished his poetry by the intermingling of musical effects. He was born at Macon, Georgia, and studied at Oglethorpe College, until the war broke out, when he entered the Confederate service. He was captured on a blockade-runner, and held prisoner for five months. The hardships of war developed consumption, and the rest of his life was a courageous struggle with that disease. Though his art was too fine and high for general appreciation, Lanier is by many regarded as one of the greatest American poets.
Of minor poets, whose name is legion, it is not possible to make even a passing mention. The test of time will sift them according to their quality.
Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 4)